The Orioles, Defiant

Saunders, defying the Rangers and his own history against them, at home and otherwise . . .

Don’t be surprised if the word “defiance” turns up on Baltimore Orioles’ caps or uniform sleeves somewhere during this postseason. Their very season seems to define it, and the way they pushed the Texas Rangers out of it seems to redefine it.

My God, the Rangers even managed to load the pads on Oriole closer Jim Johnson with two out in the bottom of the ninth and David Murphy coming up, and all they could do was watch in mute horror when Murphy’s fly settled into Baltimore left fielder Nate McLouth’s glove for the game, 5-1.

It almost figured. McLouth was mixed up in most of the Orioles’s scratch and sniff scoring Friday night while Joe Saunders, their starting pitcher, not only stood defiant on the mound but seemed at times to be toying with his former tormentors.

Saunders, the erstwhile Los Angeles Angel, was supposed to be batting practise for these Rangers, who’d never allowed him to win in Arlington before. Come to think of it, Saunders had a less than impressive postseason resume with the Angels, four nondescript starting assignments, before the Angels finally decided that, if the Arizona Diamondbacks were willing to settle for him in a swap for Dan Haren, they’d be foolish not to play along.

This past August, thinking they still had an outside shot at a National League wild card, the Snakes decided Saunders was worth sacrificing to get bullpen help named Matt Lindstrom. They ended up out of the running and Saunders could end up having the proverbial last laugh on one and all.

This was a guy who couldn’t beat the Rangers in Texas and was dinner and dessert to them all career long, taking a lifetime .874 OPS against him into Friday night’s wild card game. But Saunders picked the absolute right time to beat them in their own playpen, the lone Texas score against him (or any Oriole marksman) coming in the bottom of the first, when Ian Kinsler (leadoff walk) chugged home to tie it at one while Josh Hamilton was busy dialing Area Code 4-6-3, before Adrian Beltre flied out to center field.

“I love being the underdog,” said Saunders when it was over, and you had the sense he was talking about himself as well as his team, against whom the odds of beating the Rangers in the wild card play-in game were longer than the trip from Baltimore to Arlington—which quite a pile of Oriole fans made anyway. “To knock off the defending two-time champs from the past couple of years is pretty amazing, I think.”

The Rangers probably don’t think so. A year ago they lost a World Series they were twice a strike away from putting away. Thirty-six days ago they started a 15-16 skid that completed a fall from four games up in the American League West to a showdown for the title with a band of Oakland Athletics who equaled this year’s Orioles for unlikely overachievement.

They lost that showdown to lose the division and settle for the second wild card. Now, these Rangers lose their October plans. There’s just no respect for the law anymore. They were convinced Yu Darvish, who’d finally pulled his horses into seamless teamwork after struggling half a season to find the keys, had the right stuff to take them into a division series at least.

And, after surrendering J.J. Hardy’s first-inning RBI single, which was set up by Michael Young’s broken backhand stab at McLouth first-pitch grounder and McLouth’s prompt theft of second, Darvish convinced just about everyone else in the park from there that he had it, too.

Then, in the sixth, as Darvish apparently fought off a shoulder cramp, the Orioles began prying their way ahead. Hardy and Chris Davis opened with back-to-back singles but he managed to beat them back after Adam Jones sent a fly deep enough to right to send home Hardy.

But with one out in the seventh, Ryan Flaherty singled and Manny Machado sacrificed him to second, ending Darvish’s night and setting up reliever Derek Holland to face McLouth. And McLouth dumped a single into shallow left to make it 3-1, Orioles. Two innings later, there McLouth was again with a sacrifice fly, one of two ninth-inning tallies against Texas closer Joe Nathan, enjoying a renaissance in Texas after injuries compromised his Minnesota career.

Saunders wasn’t a personal powerhouse but he didn’t have to be. Pitching smartly to his defenders, getting three double plays for his effort, he was simply intractable. Maybe the only time you could accuse him or any of his relievers of toying with the Rangers was whenever they faced Hamilton, the free agent to be the Rangers may not be able to afford holding.

Hamilton struck out twice, on three pitches each, and otherwise hit one back to Saunders to open the Texas sixth. In that and his first-inning, run scoring double play, Hamilton swung at the first pitch. The Oriole staff must have been whistling a tune of abject surprise. They couldn’t possibly have known it would be this simple for the most part.

The Orioles defied other things, too. Well, they’ve been doing that all season long, anyway. But to those who saw the first wild card games as sudden death exercises, which is exactly what they are, these Orioles have an answer to that, too.

“Our guys approached it and we talked about it being sudden life instead of sudden death, and we played that way,” said manager Buck Showalter, who spent the first moments following Murphy’s fly landing in McLouth’s glove just watching from the dugout rail as his gang celebrated at mid-infield, letting them have the glory of the moment and letting him have the pleasure of watching.

“You’ve got to seize the opportunity,” the manager added. “We don’t get many.”

No, these Orioles make them, not get them. The Rangers, too, learned that the hard way Friday night. It’s not unrealistic to think that, with a little homework and a lot of concentration, they could teach the Empire Emeritus likewise in the coming division series.

And wouldn’t it be fun to see this band of castoff, patchwork, and randy young Orioles tangle in a League Championship Series against that band of castoff, patchwork, rookie and randy young Oakland Athletics? Talk about the Little Rascals meeting the Peanuts kids, Charlie Brown.

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